Federal Bureau of Investigation arrests man in disappearance of Chinese grad student

Yingying Zhang was visiting U of I to do research in agricultural sciences

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrested Brendt Christensen, a former Ph.D candidate, on Friday, his 28th birthday, in the kidnapping of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of IL at Champaign-Urbana.

When the investigators interviewed Christensen a second time, and pointed out the two cars looked identical, the suspect admitted he had driven around the University of IL campus on June 9 and had given a ride to an Asian female who told him "she was late for an appointment".

Zhang, 26, was recorded on surveillance getting into the suspect's black Saturn Astra around 2 p.m. after apparently missing her bus. Christensen is the car's registered owner, according to a court affidavit. Authorities now believe Zhang is dead, though they say her body has not been found.

A search of Christensen's phone showed he'd visited the site in April, FBI agents say. Christensen was enrolled as a PhD candidate in experimental condensed matter physics by UIUC but it was not clear if he was still studying at the university when he was arrested.

Sometime on Thursday, while law enforcement was keeping Christensen under surveillance, the 27-year-old was overheard explaining that he had kidnapped Zhang.

She had been doing research on crop photosynthesis, which included using drones to study fields, the university's communications office has said.

Investigators with the Federal Bureau of Investigation think the student, Yingying Zhang, 26, is probably dead, a news release from the attorney's office said. When investigators interviewed Christensen again, he admitted to driving around the University of IL campus and giving a ride to an Asian woman who said she was late for an appointment.


Christensen said he took Zhang back to his apartment.

Flyers with pictures of Yingying Zhang are still visible around Chicago's China Town; a community that stepped in to help the family of the Chinese scholar who went missing on June 9.

Investigators had also placed Christensen under surveillance after they interviewed him in mid-June, according to court documents. Christensen is scheduled to appear in federal court Monday morning.

Some 6,000 Chinese students are enrolled at the University of IL alone, the most of any college in the U.S.

Brendt Christensen was a graduate student in the physics department and a teaching assistant until May, a University of IL professor told CNN. Zhang had a position at the University of IL that would last for a year, "at the university's department of natural resources and environmental sciences". She graduated from Beijing's prestigious Peking University past year with a master's degree in environmental engineering, according to a department webpage.

Christensen told the investigators the woman said she was late to an appointment, and he offered her a ride.

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